Although initially receiving poor reviews, the Broadway play was a commercial hit, running for 2,327 performances between May 23, 1922 and October 1, 1927, at the time the longest run in Broadway theater history, surpassing the record 1291 performances set by the Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon 1918 play, Lightnin'. The show's touring company had a similarly long run and held the record for longest running touring company for nearly 40 years until the record was broken by Hello, Dolly! in the 1960s. The touring company's male lead was played by a young George Brent, the future Hollywood actor's first major role, and the female lead was played by Peggy Parry.
The play has been filmed twice—in 1928 with Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Nancy Carroll, directed by Victor Fleming, and in 1946 with Richard Norris and Joanne Dru, directed by A. Edward Sutherland. The 1946 version was produced by Bing Crosby, who was himself a devout Catholic.
It inspired the weekly NBC radio series, Abie's Irish Rose, which replaced Knickerbocker Playhouse and ran from January 24, 1942 through September 2, 1944. Nichols wrote the scripts. Axel Gruenbert and Joe Rines directed the cast that starred Richard Bond, Sydney Smith, Richard Coogan and Clayton "Bud" Collyer as Abie Levy. Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge, Julie Stevens, Bernard Gorcey, and Marion Shockley portrayed Rosemary Levy. Solomon Levy was played by Alfred White, Charlie Cantor and Alan Reed.
Others in the radio cast: Walter Kinsella (as Patrick Murphy), Menasha Skulnik (Isaac Cohen), Anna Appel (Mrs. Cohen), Ann Thomas (Casey), Bill Adams (Father Whelan), Amanda Randolph (maid) and Dolores Gillenas (the Levys' twins). The announcer was Howard Petrie, and Joe Stopak provided the music. The opening theme music was "My Wild Irish Rose" by Chauncey Olcott.
The basic premise was extensively copied, and Anne Nichols sued one imitator, Universal Pictures, which produced The Cohens and Kellys, a motion picture play about an Irish boy who marries a Jewish girl from feuding families. However, in Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found for the defendant, holding that copyright protection cannot be extended to the characteristics of stock characters in a story, whether it be a book, play or film.
The plot was ably summarized by Judge Learned Hand, in his opinion in the lawsuit:Abie's Irish Rose
presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father's great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jew. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and concerned about how to soften the blow for his father securing a favorable reception for his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father as a Jewish girl in whom he is interested and conceals the fact they are married. The girl somewhat reluctantly agrees to the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, insists that they must marry. He assumes they will because it's the father's idea. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.
Meanwhile the girl's father, also a widower who lives in California and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, so too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl's father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.
The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks' home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.
There have been some variations of the plot in different versions of the play/film. Nichols' original Broadway play had the couple meeting in France during World War I, with the young man having been a soldier and the girl a nurse who had tended to him. In this version, the priest and the rabbi from the wedding are also veterans of the same war, and recognize one another from their time in the service.
Although the play was a tremendous popular success, it was universally loathed by the critics. Robert Benchley, then the theatre critic for Life magazine, nursed a particular hatred for it. Part of Benchley's job was to write capsule reviews each week. Abie's Irish Rose he described variously as "Something Awful", "Just about as low as good clean fun can get", "Showing that the Jews and the Irish crack equally old jokes", "The comic spirit of 1876", "People laugh at this every night, which explains why democracy can never be a success", "Will the Marines never come?" and finally "Hebrews 13:8," a Biblical passage that read, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” He also held a contest for an outsider to contribute the capsule review, which Harpo Marx won with "No worse than a bad cold." Lorenz Hart expressed the feeling of many in the theater world in these lines for "Manhattan": "Our future babies we'll take to Abie's Irish Rose -- I hope they'll live to see it close." Writing in The New Yorker of its 1937 revival, Wolcott Gibbs said that "it had, in fact, the rather eerie quality of a repeated nightmare; the one, perhaps, in which I always find myself in an old well, thick with bats, and can't get out."
The play was popular enough for its title to be referenced in a pun in the Marx Brothers film Animal Crackers, in the lyrics of the Cole Porter song "Ace in the Hole", the Stephen Sondheim song "I'm Still Here", and the song "The Legacy" from the musical On the Twentieth Century.
Abie's Irish Rose inspired the comedy of husband-and-wife team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who often spiked their routines with references to their differing backgrounds (Stiller is Jewish; Meara was of an Irish Catholic background but converted to Judaism later during their marriage).
The play also provided the basic plot inspiration for the 1972-73 television series Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS), which starred Meredith Baxter and David Birney (who later became husband and wife in real life) in a kind-of reversal of Abie's Irish Rose in that Birney played struggling young Jewish cab driver/aspiring playwright Bernie Steinberg, whose parents ran a modest family delicatessen, and Baxter played Irish Catholic daughter of wealthy parents, Bridget Fitzgerald, who falls in love with and elopes with Steinberg to the disappointment of both sets of parents. (The casting also inverted real life, since Birney himself is of Irish descent.) Unlike the play and radio show that inspired it, Bridget Loves Bernie was cancelled during its first season because CBS reputedly tired of protest letters about the show's intermarriage theme, despite the show placing in the top five ratings for its season.